Dr. Novella’s “Every Single Prediction” in the Mind-Brain Problem

Michael Egnor

Atheist-materialist Dr. Steven Novella is confident: all of our experiences and awareness arise from brain matter. There is no soul, no immaterial mind, separate from the brain itself. According to Dr. Novella, a neurologist at Yale, the debate is over, and all that is left to do is to eradicate a few stubborn pockets of resistance to the theory that the mind is merely a secretion of the brain, just as bile is a secretion of the liver. Dr. Novella declares:

The materialist hypothesis– that the brain causes consciousness — has made a number of predictions, and every single prediction has been validated.

A bit of advice: whenever a scientist says of his own theory that “every single prediction has been validated’, you’re being had. No scientific theory has had ‘every single prediction’ validated. All theories accord with evidence in some ways, and are inconsistent in others. Successful scientific theories prevail on the preponderance of the evidence, not validation of “every single prediction”. Real science lacks the precision of ideology.
Both dualists and materialists recognize that matter influences the mind. Wine affects dualists just as it does materialists. The difference in viewpoint is this: dualists propose that the mind is in part caused by matter, and in part caused by something else. Mental causation is dual. Materialists believe that the mind is entirely caused by matter. There is nothing else.
Who’s right? We don’t know for sure, but over the past century we’ve learned an enormous amount about the brain, and we’ve come to see that the materialistic model of the mind has enormous evidentiary problems. The materialist theory makes quite a number of predictions that Dr. Novella elides. An example will suffice:
Dr. Novella assets that

“Every single question that can be answered scientifically – with observation and evidence…has been resolved in favor of that hypothesis [strict materialism]”

No. It is true that over the past century we have studied the electrochemistry, neuroanatomy, and molecular biology of the brain in remarkable detail, and our modern fund of knowledge of brain structure and function, even down to the molecular level, is vast. What is genuinely remarkable is what hasn’t been found, and it’s a real problem for materialism.
Consider this: if the mind arises entirely from the brain, materialism predicts that there must be a specific material cause for each mental state. That is, a specific mental state must be a specific brain state, nothing more or less. For example, if I am thinking “the White House is in Washington, D.C.”, there must be a specific arrangement of molecules and neurons and action potentials in my brain that are the thought itself. In the materialistic paradigm, please understand, matter doesn’t just correlate with the thought; matter is the thought. Materialism is the proposition that all things are material, including thoughts. Every time I think “the White House is in Washington D.C.”, there must exist in my brain that exact configuration of matter: 2,433 neurons with x concentration of acetylcholine located in 87,456 dendrites arrayed in a discrete geometrical pattern with action potentials precisely defined. That exact configuration is the thought. If I had a different configuration of matter– any difference– I would have a different thought. If each mental state is a brain state, then this reduction must hold for every thought. This is a straightforward prediction of materialism.
We have a vast knowledge of neuroscience. Yet what is the scientific evidence supporting this most fundamental prediction of materialism– that every thought is reducible at the molecular level to a discrete and unique brain state? There isn’t a shred of evidence that any discrete mental state– any specific thought– can be reduced at the molecular level to a unique material brain state. Not a shred.
The materialistic hypothesis creates even more problems. Imagine that Dr. Novella and I are both simultaneously thinking “the White House is in Washington, D.C.”. Do we both simultaneously have exactly the same brain state, defined in terms as acetylcholine, dendrites, etc.? If the thought “the White House is in Washington, D.C.” is entirely a material state of the brain, do we all have exactly the same state in our different brains when we think the same thought? No two human brains are identical. If thoughts are merely brain states, and completely reducible to them, how can identical thoughts arise in different brains?
It will do no good for Dr. Novella to fudge. He might say ‘mind states are emergent properties of matter, yet they are not rigidly linked to measurable properties of matter’. ‘Emergence’ is a popular materialist circumlocution. If you’re a materialist, and you don’t have a clue how something happens, assert (confidently) that it’s an ’emergent’ property of matter. A nice way to deflect the hard questions. Yet ’emergence’ really offers materialists no refuge from the hard questions in the mind-brain problem. This is why: if each mind state were emergent, and not merely identical with a material state of the brain, then each mind state would be defined in part by something other than the brain. Thoughts would arise from something in addition to matter. That’s a dualist position.
So what’s Dr. Novella’s evidence that each thought is completely reducible to one discrete molecular state of the brain? Not a shred. Dr. Novella can’t give even one rigorous scientific description of a mental state– a thought– in terms of a molecular brain state.
In fact, the inability to find a unique material cause adequate to completely account for each mental state is a fundamental prediction of dualism. In neuroscience, dualism is holding up quite well. Despite astonishing advances in neurobiology, not one unique material cause of a discrete mental state has been found.
So much for materialism’s “every single prediction…”

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.